Let me begin with a confession: the centennial of Jack Kerouac’s birth, which falls on March 12, nearly slipped me by. My younger self would have been all over it, so profound and present was his influence on me. I’ve written about this before, but please indulge me. My encounters with Kerouac in my teens and 20s were transformative in all sorts of ways. Encounters? I use the word in the specific context of writing and of reading; Kerouac, after all, was dead before I ever heard his name. At the same time, it seemed as if he had always been around.

“First thought, best thought”; “You’re a Genius all the time”…if such Beat-era bromides no longer feel aesthetically fulfilling, I’d be lying if I said they weren’t once revelatory. I was a kid who wanted to be a writer. I pursued that desire as if it were a grail. What I didn’t expect was that this could be stultifying, freezing; in the shadow of my longing, my (yes) dreaming, I found myself afraid to fail. Kerouac served as a tonic, or a purgative. His thoughts on spontaneous prose freed me, or at least allowed me to get out of my own way. If spontaneity was the goal, there were no mistakes, no failures. Art could be serendipitous rather than planned.

What I can tell you now is that this is equally true and not true. I can also tell you that my first thought is almost never my best thought, that narrative emerges out of its own momentum, that I make mistakes and then I fix them and then I make mistakes again. And yet, to this day, when I sit down to write, I almost never know where I am going. I don’t know where I’m going now. This is, for me, perhaps Kerouac’s most essential legacy—the insistence on trusting the process, having faith in the imagination, allowing meaning to arise from the movement of the language rather than imposing meaning from above.

Most essential legacy—that’s a loaded concept, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to Kerouac.

We write, I’ve come to believe, in and of the moment, and to hope for more is futile. How can we say whether or for how long our work may linger, and why would we want to do that, anyway? “Nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old,” Kerouac observes at the end of On the Road, the novel that made him famous, and also impossible to see on his own terms. By the time he died, on October 21, 1969, of esophageal hemorrhaging (his biographer Gerald Nicosia called it a “classic drunkard’s death”), he had been rendered an icon, “the man who launched the hippie world, the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation,” according to the cover copy on my 1970s paperback of On the Road. That this had nothing to do with who he was should go without saying; he was not an archetype but a human being.

lowell, ma   june 6 the house where jack kerouac was born and is now for rent photo by bill greenethe boston globe via getty images
The house where Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Boston Globe

Born in the Merrimack Valley mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, to French Canadian parents, Kerouac grew up working-class. He was only four when his nine-year-old brother, Gerard, memorialized in the novel Visions of Gerard, died of rheumatic fever, a loss so traumatic that Kerouac never got out from underneath its weight. In that sense, Visions of Gerard, while one of his lesser efforts, is also instructive, since from the outset he approached writing, first and foremost, as an act of memory.

Such a distinction is important because it casts Kerouac’s body of work as inherently retrospective. His writing is not countercultural or avant-garde, except in its modes of expression and conception; for all the rhetoric about spontaneity and improvisation, Kerouac seeks to use them to frame, through the interplay of his many individual novels and narratives, “one vast book like Proust’s…seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me).”

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Do I need to explain why I found this so compelling? He was making of his life a kind of myth. Not only out of egotism, although that too, but more fundamentally as a gesture of existential preservation, an attempt to build a barricade against mortality. The inevitability of his own extinction terrified Kerouac, even as he yearned for it. “I wish I was free / of that slaving meat wheel,” he writes in the 211th chorus of his book-length jazz poem Mexico City Blues, “and safe in heaven dead.” For him, time was the enemy, the great destroyer, a state of being to which we are condemned.

“We know time,” Dean Moriarty, the character based on Kerouac’s friend and inspiration Neal Cassady, repeats throughout On the Road, but this, I can’t help but reckon, is less a riff or affirmation than a lament.

I was too young to understand that when I first read On the Road. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I was looking for something else. A model, I suppose, or a road map, a strategy for staking out my way of moving through the world. I was 15 or 16 and eager for an escape route, but the novel, it turned out, possessed a different point of view. Loss or sadness or the impossibility of transcendence, which Kerouac described as “the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach and which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm.”

How to sustain it, that point of ecstasy? The only answer is that you cannot. This is the tragedy or the fate—I often imagine them as the same thing—that Kerouac, or his fictional alter ego Sal Paradise, faces throughout the novel.

This was the sentence he could not escape.

Something similar, of course, is true for all of us. Nothing lingers, nothing lasts. The frantic back-and-forth of On the Road, The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, the search for kicks and experience, to borrow a Beat cliché: all of it is just deflection in the end.

Kerouac made this explicit in his Buddhist writings—Some of the Dharma, Wake Up, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity—although I find it telling that he got stuck on the first of the Four Noble Truths (life is suffering) without ever progressing to the second (the origin of suffering is attachment), third (the cessation of suffering is attainable), or fourth (there is a path out of suffering, the Noble Eightfold Path). That would have required too much rigor. That would have required Kerouac to set himself aside. I say this not as criticism because I feel the same. Why else write, if not to leave a record of who you were and what you did and saw? Here we have another lesson Kerouac taught me: that every life is epic in its way.

lowell, ma   november 05  a general of view of beat generation pioneer jack kerouacs recently restored gravesite in edson cemetery, where literary fans have left gifts of alcohol and cigarettes, on november 5, 2014 in lowell, massachuetts  photo by paul marottagetty images
Kerouac’s grave site in Edson Cemetery, where literary fans have left gifts of alcohol and cigarettes.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images

If I no longer think of Kerouac as I once did, it’s in part because I now imagine evanescence as what gives meaning to existence, rather than the other way around. I’m older than I was, and although that’s no guarantee of wisdom, it makes me want to take a more expansive view. “I’m not a teacher, not a sage, not a Roshi,” Kerouac writes in the impressionistic tone poem Old Angel Midnight, “not a writer or master or even a giggling dharma bum I’m my mother’s son & my mother is the universe—”

It’s a line I love most for its music, and for the wishful thinking at its core.

Kerouac, after all, was a sentimentalist. He wanted to save everyone. He was also a drunk and a reactionary who rejected the youth movement that followed after him. He appropriated not only Buddhist scripture but also jazz and blues motifs, and he incorporated them into his work in ways that were often stereotyped and clichéd. He was belligerent, and by the time he died at 47, he had alienated nearly every friend he ever had.

I used to know not what to make of that; I’m not sure what to make of it still. On the one hand, we might say, this casts his legacy into question, but on the other, what is legacy? Kerouac suffered from our inability to understand him, our collective failure to recognize him for who he was. He was labeled a Beat, as if he were some sort of generational spokesperson, yet in the 1950s, he and the members of his cohort (Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance) were outsiders—and in any case, as Gregory Corso so astutely observed of the Beat phenomenon, “four people do not a generation make.”

No, for me, Kerouac is, as he ever was, a contradiction, or a set of contradictions: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I remain in his debt for all he gave me—not least, for the permission to make it up as I go along.•

David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.